One the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, right here in the hallowed electronic pages of CraveOnline, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I briefly discussed a legendary 1938 film called The Terror of Tiny Town, a notorious western whose only point of note is that it featured an all-dwarf cast. As we indicated, this film is notoriously hard to find, usually only floating to the surface if you bother to stir through the gigantic bins of public domain DVDs you find at the entrance of drug stores. $1 DVD impulse purchases should be reserved for those who don't care what film their watching and perhaps only need some funky, low-quality video wallpaper for a party, or die-hard cineastes, like me, who will indeed occasionally rifle through the discount bins looking for treasure. Yes, I have found it. As I said on the podcast, my public domain 20-film “Cult Classics” set contained not only The Terror of Tiny Town, but the infamous Reefer Madness (a.k.a. Tell Your Children, 1936), the joyously lurid Child Bride (1938), the bizarre Omoo-Omoo, the Shark God (1949), and, most notably, Chained for Life (1951), the overblown crime flick to star Daisy and Violet Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins, who were featured famously in Tod Browning's Freaks.
Despite the proliferation of film availability (most of my peers are on some sort of instant-streaming service), there is still an entire class of film out there that will still remain hidden comfortably from the light of day. These are films that are so strange, so obscure, so cheap and awful, that the only people interested in them would have to be hunting for them to find them. Sure, hundreds of classics are instantly available, but I feel that such ease of access can often serve to devalue a film; how much will The Godfather actually reach you and move you if you're only passively absorbing it on a whim, giving it the same attention you would to a rerun of Cupcake Wars?
Hunting for the obscure will always be a game for the passionate. Accidentally finding a weird-ass movie will be a happy coincidence. Finding one you've been searching for over the course of mythic years of dusty dollar bin searching will only prove to be legitimately enlightening. I have long been a bin-diver, and have spent the better part of my life in video stores and used record stores looking for a rare oddity, or simply discovering something organically. Thanks to my searches, I have a CD of The Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt rapping about Christmas, I have an entire operetta composed on a newly-invented instrument called the daxophone, and I have a VHS copy of The Playgirl Morning Workout. Sorry, ladies, but the video features no nude men. Just a lot of really embarrassing blonde mustaches.
If you're interested in starting the hunt, however, you're going to need a shopping list. Some of these are easily found, some are lost in the sands of time, but all of them should whet your appetite for the strange, and get your eyeballs shifting to the right wavelength.
RAT PFINK A BOO BOO (dir. Ray Dennis Steckler, 1966)
Ray Dennis Steckler is a low-budget director of cheesy exploitation movies, most famously The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), who had a legitimate interest in the perverse. His films all featured a surreal, low budget bent whose cheapness had them teetering on the hallucinatory. Half the time, you were grooving to hopped-up '60s tunes, and the other half, you were trying to decipher what the hell was going on. Anyone who's popped in a video in the middle of the night after an extended evening of overeating has experienced this delightfully lightheaded feeling of reality unraveling. Of his films, I like Rat Pfink a Boo Boo best. It's about a rockabilly singer who moonlights as a superhero named Rat Pfink (Vin Saxon), along with his goofy sidekick Boo Boo (Tius Moede). The film starts out like a legitimate film, following super-criminals and the easygoing life of rockabilly drapes, but when Rat Pfink shows up, the entire film takes a hard left into batsh*t crazy territory. A DVD was once made of this film. Wanna get it from Netflix? I think they got it.
THEY EAT SCUM (dir. Nick Zedd, 1979)
Handsome, Baltimore-based punk-rocker Nick Zedd was one of the forefronts of a particular brand of new-wave art that was coming out of the east coast in the late '70s and early '80s. His films, true to the punk rock spirit, were angry, violent, subversive, confrontational, and way, way, way low-fi. He would film his friends performing live punk shows and delivering anti-establishment rants encouraging assassination, murder, self-mutilation, and sexual deviance. Thanks to their low-fi presentation, you get the definite feeling that Zedd was being completely sincere. His magnum opus, is to speak, is probably They Eat Scum, the first film that really codified his voice. In it, his girlfriend-at-the-time Donna Death plays a punk rock priestess named Suzi Putrid who rocks out, kills, rants, kills, and cuts off a guy's penis in one scene. And, yes, there is cannibalism and simulated (?) coprophagy. As I age, it seems that young people are losing their edge, sticking to safer modes of music and personal expression. Parts of me long for vandalism and anarchy, and I feel films like They Eat Scum can help fan the flames. C'mon, kiddos, let's get some hateful destruction in your idiom.
OVER-SEXED RUGSUCKERS FROM MARS (dir. Michael Paul Girard, 1989)
So, I was in Portland, OR in 1996, visiting my older sister at her college. Knowing that I was already kind of a film nut, she, along with a group of our friends, decided to hit up a local video start called Movie Madness. This was a glorious place. It was the first video store I encountered that had its films divided off by director. But of real note was, at the end of a long hallways in the back of the store, was an entire room that the store deemed its “Psychotronic” section. Anything that couldn't be classified, had a strange title, or seemed completely unknown to even the most hardcore film-lovers, would be carefully catalogued and lined up in here. It was here that, based solely on its title, that we found Over-sexed Rugsuckers from Mars, a zero-budget sci-fi film about stop-motion animated space aliens who possess Earth's vacuum cleaners, and commit zealous acts of rape. It was right next to 1990's Attack of the Killer Refrigerator and Death Bed: The Bed That Eats in the store's “When Appliances Attack” section. The film itself is, bafflingly, available on DVD, and you can actually get it through Netflix. A cheaper film you won't see. They also still have it at Movie Madness, still proudly renting oddball movies to this day (http://moviemadnessvideo.com/)
SHAKMA (dirs. Tom Logan & Hugh Parks, 1990)
Easily the best killer baboon film the world has ever seen, this little oddity has not seen DVD, and needs to be tracked down. It is intense, silly, and one of the better b-movies I've seen in a long time. It features a group of twenty-something pathologists who lock themselves into their own medical building for the night in order to play a high-tech interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons. Roddy McDowell plays the game master. After the doors have been locked, and their connection to the outside world has been firmly cut off, a killer baboon (Typhoon) lurches up from the pathology lab, and goes on a murder spree, occasionally tearing off people's genitals. That baboon is an awesome animal actor, and Shakma is probably the best example of animal wrangling in any film. The film is not available on DVD. It's not on any instant streaming services. Find it on video and watch it. Go. Go for it.
COBRA WOMAN (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1944)
Robert Siodmak, the director of classics like The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, and Son of Dracula was one of the more stylish b-directors of his time. I feel he was never better than in this grossly lurid and colorful Cobra Woman, a campy delight of overacting, over-designed sets, and over-saturated colors. Maria Montez plays a gorgeous young fiancée who is kidnapped from her big city home by horrible and racist primitives. Her man travels to her childhood island looking for her, only to find that her twin sister is heading up a murderous cobra cult. The scene where Montez dances and swirls her way through a human sacrifice is definitely a highlight. Montez doesn't just chew the scenery, but eats it in enormous, ravenous bites. Also in the film are Sabu, the Indian actor from The Thief of Baghdad and Black Narcissus, and Lon Cheney, Jr. The story is pure melodramatic hokum, and not a single line of dialogue passes with subtlety or naturalness. The film's gigantic golden cobra reminds us that there was a time when movie budgets and production time would go into elaborate, well-lit sets instead of dim, CGI-enhanced pseudo-spaces. There is a DVD of Cobra Woman, but only through one of those print-on-demand services. I think it's worth the demand.
NEXT: Bibbs makes a startling revelation and offers up Marvel superheroes, lake monsters and sword fights you may never get to see…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
Full Disclosure: I have never once written any of these articles at a desk. You have been lied to. Also, walk signals? They really are connected to those buttons. Everything you know is a lie. Especially that.
Anyway, movies. There sure are a lot of them, aren’t there? You will never be able to see them all. Like, literally. You could spend every waking hour of your life watching movies and never catch up, and that’s not even including all the porn. The big movies, in scope, popularity or acclaim, tend to find their way to audiences around the world, but not all the time, and the little movies quickly get lost in a quagmire of new releases with hefty marketing campaigns. In this world of digital downloads, instant streaming and, well, outright piracy, there are very few films that can’t be found in some way or another, but for one reason or another they’re being kept from general audiences. Maybe no one cares enough to release them, maybe a series of annoying legalities get in the way, or maybe nobody’s even looking, but even legendary works of eccentricity like The Terror of Tiny Town are difficult to find, even for the hardened film enthusiast.
It’s getting better. What we once called “cults”are frequently becoming mainstream audiences, and big, fancy special editions of weirdo stuff like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Night of the Creeps and Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural can frequently be found as a Best Buy near you. They’re still exceptions though. For every remastered release of Vampire Circus that mysteriously finds distribution, there are hundreds of Matangos and From Hell It Cames and The Conquerors that Hollywood would prefer we all forget about as a culture. That’s not going to happen though. Not as long as film inspires fanatical devotion the world over.
But yes, it’s improving. My once-formidable collection of Laserdiscs, dedicated almost exclusively to films not available on DVD, has more-or-less been reduced to a box of enormous coasters now that movies like Planet of the Vampires and the Gene Kelly Three Musketeers have finally weaseled their way onto home video of some kind. My needs are few, and my desperate needs are even fewer. But there are a few movies which remain all but completely unavailable on home video. I skewed a little more mainstream than Witney in my choices, but that’s why there’s two of us, isn’t it?
THE FANTASTIC FOUR (dir. Oley Sassone, 1994)
No list of hard-to-find films would be complete without Fantastic Four (or for that matter Song of the South, but I didn’t want to fill my list with entirely known quantities, so let’s focus on this today). In 1992, Constantin Film was about to lose the rights to Fantastic Four, a popular and historically significant superhero comic book series published by Marvel Comics, so they turned to legendary low budget schlockmeister Roger Corman to help put together a faux-feature film. Never intended for release – an important fact that Constantin Film kept from both the cast and crew – Fantastic Four is a legendarily shoddy production that suffers from ultra-low production values, a truly awful screenplay and enthusiastic but mostly bad performances. It’s never had a proper VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray or even Betamax release, and with good cause, since it’s just awful. There’s one shot in the film that’s from the point-of-view of a blind woman. No, the screen isn’t black; it’s just that poorly conceived. But the film is a goofy treat and an honest-to-goodness geek legend. You can find crappy bootlegs pretty easily, but the odds of ever finding it in even the shoddiest dollar bin are pretty slim. Oh, and Constantin Film? They kept the rights, and were responsible for the also-bad Fantastic Four movies we finally got in 2005 and 2007.
BY THE SWORD (dir. Jeremy Paul Kagan, 1991)
Here’s a movie you may have seen on HBO in the mid-1990s, but which has never been released on DVD. That’s a pity, because it’s actually pretty good. Not great, just pretty good. Certainly more deserving of a home video release than Theodore Rex, but I digress. Amadeus star (and Oscar-winner) F. Murray Abraham stars as an ex-con who gets a job working for Eric Roberts, who runs a top-flight fencing school. What Roberts doesn’t know is that Abraham is himself a fencing master, who killed Roberts’father in a duel decades prior. That’s good drama, since we’re waiting for secret to be revealed so the inevitable deadly duel to begin (it’s a good one, too), but there’s a neat twist: Eric Roberts is the bad guy. Abraham is on a quest for genuine redemption, while Roberts is merely on a quest for revenge. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off star Mia Sara co-stars as a young fencing student torn between two teachers. Parts of the film are a little goofy (Abraham uses contemporary music as a teaching tool?! Madness!!), but given the film’s pedigree it shouldn’t be as hard to find as it is. Fun flick.
SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (dir. Todd Haynes, 1987)
Like Fantastic Four, Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Storyis another film you will probably never see, at least legally. The future director of Far from Heaven and the recent mini-series adaptation of Mildred Pierce made his second short film in 1987, telling the biography of pop singer Karen Carpenter using Barbie dolls instead of actors. It’s a blunt metaphor for Carpenter’s tragic struggle with anorexia, which led to her untimely death in 1983, at the age of 32, but Haynes was already a talented enough filmmaker to make the gimmick work in his favor. Superstar is a remarkably powerful little film, packing a dramatic wallop in 43 minutes that many full-length features don’t even aspire to, let alone achieve. Alas, Haynes failed to secure the music rights to the Carpenters’catalogue, which he featured prominently in his film, and was sued by Richard Carpenter (who also objected to the film’s insinuation that he was gay). Carpenter won the lawsuit, and the film was supposed to have been taken off the market and destroyed. A proper copy still exists at The Museum of Modern Art (which has agreed never to exhibit the film), but you can still find increasingly shoddy bootlegs out there. I’m not going to advocate piracy (cough), but if you ever have the chance to watch Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story you’ll be rewarded for your trouble with a deeply moving film.
RUN (dir. Geoff Burrowes, 1991)
An all-but-forgotten early 90s Hitchcockian thriller, Run starred the once and future heartthrob Patrick Dempsey as a law student and part-time mechanic with really, really sh*tty luck. He’s delivering a Porsche to Atlantic City and makes a pit stop at an underground casino, where he wins a game of poker and, in an ensuing fight, accidentally kills the loser…who happens to be the son of a local mob boss. Now there’s a price on his head and everyone in town – including the cops – are out to kill him. A simple set-up, but directed with skill by Geoff Burrowes, making his second (and only) film after Return to Snowy River. Dempsey is a plucky protagonist and – luckily – a skilled runner, who picks up a waitress played by a young Kelly Preston as his only ally. It’s not a lost classic: there’s a few memorable set pieces – including a real doozy of a chase in a car park – but it suffers from a very abrupt conclusion. Yet there’s no reason why Run shouldn’t be available on DVD. It’s a taut thriller that deserves a second look…if you can find it.
FROG DREAMING, aka THE QUEST (dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1986)
This may not be a great movie. I can’t say for sure, since I haven’t seen it in over 20 years and it’s never been released on DVD. The VHS is pretty rare too. Everyone who remembers Frog Dreaming, or as it is better known in America, The Quest, remembers it fondly though. E.T. and Cloak & Dagger star Henry Thomas starred in this Australian pseudo-fantasy as a Cody, an American orphan living in Australia with his guardian, Gaga (Australia’s Tony Barry). Cody becomes obsessed with the legend of a local lake monster called “The Donkegin,”and fashions a diving suit to search for it. When he doesn’t come out, the town begins a mighty search for his body and the real secret of the beast, which is a memorable revelation indeed. The spookiness of Frog Dreaming has remained with me for decades, with certain shots and scenes permanently etched into my subconscious courtesy of Aussie schlockmeister Brian Trenchard-Smith, but unless somebody makes this thing available somehow I may never know if that’s just nostalgia talking. Have you ever seen it?
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE HARD-TO-FIND FILMS…?